And with good reason. Clemson held a 38-7 halftime lead over the overmatched, FCS Bulldogs –a far cry from the Bulldogs that the Tigers dispatched here just seven days ago.
One week removed from a monumental 38-35 win over then-No.5 Georgia, Dabo Swinney’s bunch did everything it had to and then some in a rout of South Carolina State. Clemson 52, S.C. State 13 wasn’t perfect, but it was a worthy follow-up to perhaps the biggest win of Swinney’s five-year tenure.
The Tigers made big plays on defense, had efficient offensive play, got reserves oodles of playing time and, for the most part, avoided key injuries.
They did what they had to. They get 12 days to rest before Sept. 19’s ACC opener at N.C. State. You really can’t ask for much more from the No.4 Tigers.
“Our guys were ready,” Swinney said. “If we perform and play to our standards, it shouldn’t be close. We took care of business and did what we needed to do.”
There were certainly questions about whether that would happen here. How would Clemson rebound from a raucous, emotional night with ESPN’s College GameDay in town, 83,000 and then some in the stands and a national ABC audience watching the program’s second consecutive win over a top-10 SEC opponent?
How do you go from that to getting excited for a team that lost to Coastal Carolina? It’s not as easy as it sounds.
“I’m not going to lie,” junior cornerback Martin Jenkins said. “We started off the week kind of slow. There wasn’t as much energy on campus or the locker room, anything as there was for Georgia. Coach Swinney addressed that with the team, got frustrated with us Tuesday, we came out a little sluggish.”
Jenkins said Tuesday’s practice was “kind of slow; guys were missing opportunities, not making plays when they should make plays.”
Tuesday’s practice, Swinney said, “was not good: Tuesday was a bad day. Sometimes you’ve got to refocus young people – that was a refocus day.”
And refocus they did. Wednesday’s workout, he said, “was the best practice we had all of camp” and Thursday and Friday were solid as well.
Twelve minutes in, the Tigers led 17-0, thanks to an opening-drive field goal and an efficient touchdown drive sandwiched around a three-and-out and Martin Jenkins’ 52-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Beyond that, the day was about developing young players and reserves and avoiding injuries. Well, consider this: Clemson’s leading rusher? C.J. Davidson, with 63 yards. Backup quarterback Cole Stoudt completed 19 of 20 passes – setting the program’s single-game completion percentage record – with 143 yards and three touchdowns.
His top target? Sophomore Germone Hopper, who caught six passes for 66 yards with two touchdowns. Junior Martavis Bryant, pilloried all week for a substandard performance against Georgia? He caught the first pass of the game and finished with four receptions for 87 yards.
Clemson ran 95 offensive plays and played 82 players; 14 players made receptions and 10 players carried the ball.
“All we have is each other in the fall,” Swinney said. “It’s hard to get true evaluations. We know each other so well, the other guys know each other’s tendencies so well, we practice against each other every day with no real live scoreboard, no fans in the stands. You can’t simulate that. This is an opportunity to get real tape, not playing against each other, getting a true evaluation.
“It’s a chance for us to knock the rust off a lot of guys. If you’re a young player, you’re really excited to play. The longer it goes you don’t play, it mounts up on you. It’s a chance to shake off these guys, a chance to touch the ball.”
By halftime, that’s all that was left to talk about.
“At halftime, the (Fox Sports Net) sideline reporter was like, ‘Some might say your team is playing down to these guys. I was like, ‘It’s 38-7, we’re on a pace to run 100 plays and score 76 points,” Swinney said. “That’s a lack of respect for our opponent, a well-coached, prideful football team. We competed hard, our guys were ready.”
Outside of senior tailback Rod McDowell (who didn’t play in the second half after taking a hard shot late in the second quarter; Swinney said he was being evaluated for a possible concussion but “looked great”) and senior quarterback Tajh Boyd coming out of the game momentarily after getting the wind knocked out of him, it was a positive day, injury-wise.
Boyd said Stoudt’s performance showed he could “start anywhere in the ACC”.
And who knows? This team might need Stoudt somewhere down the line this season, should something happen to Boyd.
Injuries happen, and perhaps the confidence built on a sun-splashed Saturday will come back to help Swinney and Co.
For now, however, there is rest – and preparation – before a Thursday night trip to Carter-Finley Stadium. Two years ago, Clemson rolled in as the nation’s No. 7 team, and wound up on the wrong end of a 37-13 demolition, part of a 2-4 season-ending slide that wound up in an Orange Bowl embarrassment.
This feels like a different team. One that knows how to handle itself at all times.
Saturday was just the latest sign of that.